Steeped in its own history like sweet tea, Charleston is South Carolina’s oldest city and the place the Civil War began. Reminders of the past are everywhere.
If you only have 36 hours in Charleston …
You’ll have to prioritize, no doubt. Many Southerners consider Charleston our unofficial capital, and certainly THE city that epitomizes Southern hospitality at its best. And what better way to begin your Charleston experience than with breakfast.
Here at CarolinaLiving.com, we’re not shy about discussing our favorites. We’ve all enjoyed the Holy City and will again. So, let’s begin with the caveat that we are sharing a small sampling of recommendations.
One droll soul suggested that the search for the best Charleston breakfast could be likened to a quest for the impossible dream.
That said, here goes.
Hominy Grill. It’s mentioned time and again for its shrimp and grits. “Best I’ve ever tasted,” is a common refrain. If you haven’t indulged, give it a try. Grits are creamy comfort food when cooked correctly, but nobody serves them alone. They are used as a foil for the really good stuff.
If you aren’t ready to give grits a whirl, ask for the homemade banana bread, or salmon potato cakes. You’ll be delighted and no wonder. To give credit its due, Chef/Proprietor Robert Stehling received the James Beard Best Chef Southeast award in 2008.
OK, fortified for a perfect day, it’s time to revisit those entertainment choices.
If you’re here on a Saturday, between April and December, consider the Farmer’s Market at Marion Square. You’ll see glorious Lowcountry produce of course, but there’s also live music, families playing and strolling, plants, herbs and cut flowers, and art. You’ll love it!
Those with a yen for history should really take a boat trip out to Fort Sumter. It is, after all, where the first shot that officially started the Civil War was heard. More than that, the kids will love climbing and poking their heads into nooks and crannies. Everyone will enjoy the ride through Charleston Harbor, and the trip back gives a remarkable overview of Charleston’s esteemed and much photographed Battery.
Lunchtime deserves another pause to consider where to go and what to enjoy. The Thoroughbred Club at the Charleston Place Hotel is a great choice. For one, this is an eminently affordable way to experience a classic hotel that is one of the city’s best. In the middle of everything downtown, you may want to slip on a set of pearls and prepare to be pampered and well-fed for an hour or more. The afternoon tea selection is fabulous, as is the tapas menu. If you’re really on vacation, the Charleston Place Punch will smooth out any rough edges.
In the middle of downtown you’ll find shops, galleries, antiques galore, and the Charleston City Market, with its four buildings and hundreds of vendors. Here, you’ll see a number of artisans making sweet grass baskets. The baskets aren’t cheap but the skill required to make them takes years to master. A definite treasure that will last for generations.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping along the streets. The tours cover a variety of routes so once is never enough. (We know a couple who tries to take a carriage ride every year around their anniversary). It’s a slow, effortless stroll through these magical streets, accompanied by excellent tour guides who keep you entertained as they educate. At Classic Carriage Works, the horses are Percherons – beauties who seem to actually enjoy their jobs.
You’ll pass by private homes and historical buildings, ride down shady streets, and you’ll have a much-needed break from all that walking.
The day has waned and so have you. Get your second wind, kissed by gentle coastal breezes, as you enjoy the view of downtown and the new, widely acclaimed Arthur Ravenel Bridge from the Pavilion Bar, on the Market Pavilion Hotel rooftop. You’ll see it all from here, and enjoy one of the city’s most stylish destinations as you decide where to dine.
And you’ll have quite a decision. There are so many great choices that our staff simply couldn’t narrow it down to one. Here are a few that are sure to please:
El Cortile del Re
One of Charleston’s best for authentic Tuscan cuisine, in a romantic European courtyard setting. 843.853.1888
And the list goes on, and on.
Some are elegant, others more casual. All have received rave reviews in virtually every food blog around. Your evening will be memorable, we promise.
To keep the Lowcountry ambience in place, consider staying at Wentworth Mansion, a downtown inn that gives you extraordinary service in amazing surroundings. It is the only five-diamond inn in Charleston and with good reason. The rooms are sumptuous to say the least, with high ceilings and gilded era furnishings. The cordials and brandies provide a perfect nightcap. The rooftop cupola offers a panoramic view of the city. If you don’t want to venture far, just next door is Circa 1886, one of our highly recommended restaurants.
The next morning, enjoy fantastic breakfast treats downstairs, then decide how to finish your 36 hours. A cooking class? Check out Maverick Southern Kitchens for a list of upcoming classes. The store is worth the visit, even without the cooking instruction.
Would you rather make reservations than dinner? No problem. Forget the cooking class and opt for more history, albeit on the macabre side. Consider a historic cemetery tour. Magnolia Cemetery is the final resting place for bootleggers, military leaders, politicians, plantation aristocracy, bordello madams and 2,200 Civil War veterans (including five Confederate generals).
You can enjoy a visit on your own, but you’ll learn so much more with a tour. One possibility is with Bulldog Tours. Ask for Ed Macy. He’s a favorite with folks who rave about their amazing visit to this remarkable graveyard.
If it’s lunchtime again, you’ll find countless possibilities. For a real Southern experience, try Jestine’s Kitchen. Roadfood.com says this:
“There isn’t a nicer table anywhere to taste the time-honored coastal delights of shrimp and grits or shrimp Creole, as well as such stupendously seasoned Lowcountry vegetables as okra gumbo and red rice or the deep-south delight, deep-fried green tomatoes with sweet pepper relish.”
Trip Advisor reviewers give it high marks, too, although a few visitors were less than impressed. We say, decide for yourself, but be prepared to wait in line.
Wow Factor: The views, the history, the food, the fun. Every meal may well be a knockout, and you’ll surely want to take your largest pair of pants to wear home. Don’t worry about it. Charleston cuisine is worth the calories and you’ll be walking lots.
Hint: If you’re not a Southerner, you’ll probably see unfamiliar flowers behind garden gates and in lush parks. Before visiting, bone up on your flora with the March issue of Southern Living. In it, you’ll find lovely examples of five of Charleston’s most favored plants: Azaleas, Camellias, Gardenias, Crepe Myrtles and Noisette Roses. And they’re not limited to Charleston and the Lowcountry. Every staffer at CarolinaLiving.com grows a few of these luscious beauties.
There’s more of course, but that’s for tomorrow. We warned you. There’s a lifetime of exploring to be done here.
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